The spectacular demolition of the high-rise Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in 1972 has been described as "the day Modernism died," but a very different dynamic played out across the Atlantic. As documented in a beautiful new book by architect and historian Mark Swenarton, in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, London saw the creation of a wide variety of low-rise, high-density public housing projects by young architects who adapted Modernist design idioms to the era's intense need for low-cost housing. Focusing on the architectural output of single north London borough, the richly detailed and lushly produced new book, called Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, documents in vivid detail the design and construction of thousands of affordable homes in Camden, one of London's wealthiest and most historic neighborhoods. Created between 1965 and 1980 under the direction of Camden's visionary chief architect Sydney Cook, the projects described in Mark Swenarton's magisterial book constitute what he describes as "not just the last great output of social housing... but also arguably the most concentrated architectural investigation into urban housing undertaken in the last 50 years." In the foreword to the book, Columbia University historian Kenneth Frampton concurs, describing Cook's Camden as "an exceptionally thorough documentation and analysis of British achievements in the field of low-rise, high-density housing.... part and parcel of this international movement towards achieving denser, anti-suburban, proto-ecological patterns of land settlement." At the heart of Cook's Camden is the work of New York-born architect Neave Brown, whose social housing projects range in scale and ambition, starting with a small terrace of five raw concrete row houses and ending with Alexandra Road, perhaps the most celebrated architectural scheme in England. Alexandra Road turns its back on the adjacent train tracks to form a protected interior street, with front doors facing out onto a pedestrian-friendly, car-free environment from a ziggurat of stepped apartments, each with its own balcony garden. All of the projects Neave Brown designed for Camden have been protected as national landmarks, and last year, his work earned him even greater honor: a much-belated RIBA Gold Medal, bestowed just before his death at age 88, in large part, thanks to the appreciative attention garnered for him by the author Mark Swenarton, who has been conducting the research for Cook's Camden for more than 12 years. Another designer featured in Cook's Camden is Peter Tabori, whose Highgate New Town complex, located between a large hospital and a Victorian-era cemetery, took inspiration from the dense urbanism of a Tuscan hill town. Like many of the housing schemes described in Cook's Camden, Highgate New Town was first celebrated, then allowed to decline, and in recent years has been revived as one of London's most valuable public-private council estates. A final project described in Cook's Camden, Branch Hill became known as "the country's most expensive council houses." Built on a difficult hillside site in the heart of Hampstead, one of London's most exclusive and expensive residential districts, Branch Hill was designed by architects Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, who went on to design the acclaimed Museum of Scotland. In keeping with the goal of maximizing green space, the architects took full advantage of the sloping site to create extensive private roof gardens. For present-day architects or developers looking to "solve" the affordable housing crisis, perhaps the most valuable chapter covers the smaller-scale infill schemes that Swenarton calls "urban dentistry." The projects described and illustrated in this section include Neave Brown's first small-scale effort, on which he joined with fellow early 1960s student architects Michael and Patty Hopkins, to develop, design and build a five-unit terrace of supremely detailed modern homes on a tight urban site. Another commission went to Edward "Ted" Cullinan, who designed a five-story mix of family duplexes and smaller one-bedroom apartments, composed with contextualist flourishes that put it among London's first postmodern buildings. Along with lush production quality, hundreds of vintage and contemporary photographs and carefully catalogued references, one of the many valuable features of Cook's Camden is a gazetteer and map of all the properties and projects studied in the book, which may well inspire readers to take a trip to London to see these fine designs and inspiring examples of municipal success. In a final section of Cook's Camden, the author digests the era's seismic changes and draws three important lessons for today's designers, planners and builders: one, recognize that the street is the basis for urban housing; two, understand that designing urban housing demands attention not only to physical form but also to the social relationships these forms may engender; finally, and perhaps most importantly, that designers must use all their abilities–"analytical and visionary, rational and imaginative, practical and poetic, to provide something better than what is currently being built around us." Based in London and New York, Jamie Jensen is a writer and advocate for public space and urban sustainability. Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing Lund Humphries $69.51 (hardcover)
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Two months before he died, in poor health and noticeably frail, architect Neave Brown packed East London’s Hackney Empire to capacity: 1,300 predominantly young architects came to hear from the man who had just been awarded the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal. They gave him a standing ovation. Brown, who died on January 9, age 88, was the antithesis of the starchitect. He had completed his last building in the UK nearly 40 years earlier and a decade later finally put down his (pre-digital) drafting pens to become a painter. The medal came as a result of a reappraisal of his contribution to the architecture of housing and citymaking against the contemporary backdrop of a housing crisis, an expanding city, and the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. Brown studied at London’s Architectural Association in the 1950s and was not alone in rejecting tower blocks as a model for the future, but few did more to develop an alternative model and do so with such a high level of architectural ambition and skill. His was a street-based architecture, low, ground-hugging, and dense, that owed as much to his admiration for the Georgian terraces of London as it did to a more apparent inspiration—Le Corbusier, for Brown had been both designer and cocurator of the retrospective of the Swiss architect’s work held at the Hayward gallery in 1987. In 1965, Brown completed a terrace of five houses at Winscombe Street in the London Borough of Camden. To meet the government’s demanding Parker Morris Committee space standards, Brown ingeniously created interior spaces that afforded both spaciousness and flexibility. Although thoroughly modern, the terrace fit the London street pattern, with clearly identifiable front doors a few steps up from the pavement and a shared garden behind. It encouraged sociability, a place where neighbors could and would drop by. It was here at Winscombe Street that Brown and his wife, Janet, brought up their children Victoria, Aaron, and Zoe, putting his ideas about the “intergenerational home” to the test. In the same year, Camden Borough Council appointed Sydney Cook as its chief architect committed to finding new models of low-rise high-density housing. Meeting Brown and visiting Winscombe Street convinced Cook that he had found the architect to design Camden’s future. Brown’s first project for Camden, Fleet Road, comprised 72 flats and a shop, with planted shared roof terraces and individual balconies and gardens. Built at the same density as a tower block, it rose from one to four stories. In later years Brown moved from Winscombe Street to Fleet Road, again becoming both resident architect and conscientious neighbor. Brown’s most famous project, Alexandra Road estate, was not so much a housing scheme as a microcosm of the modern city, incorporating a community center, two schools, shops, a youth club, and a maintenance depot, as well as 500 terraced homes along a gently curving street. Each flat has its front door to the street and a balcony facing south. The street and, parallel to it, a linear park contributed two new and distinctive public spaces to the city. Built at a time of rocketing inflation, the costs spiraled, and this, along with the uncompromising modernity of the design, caused controversy. The political changes brought by Margaret Thatcher effectively took housing out of the hands of local authorities and placed it with the national house builders. The future of London became, for a period, suburban in style and density. The experiment with low-rise high-density housing was stopped short, and Brown had to look beyond Britain for work. It was the public spaces of Alexandra Road and the integration of complex social facilities with housing that attracted the aldermen of The Hague to appoint Brown in 1987 to design a project of equivalent complexity and even higher density on the Zwolsestraat, marking the boundary of the city to the sand dunes and sea. Designed with David Porter, the project was at an advanced stage, with the building rising from the ground, when the developer-client determined to discard the intricate street-based public realm as designed and replace it with deck access. The architects relinquished the project. Brown was more successful with a delicate cluster of apartments built outside Bergamo in Italy and a second Dutch project, the Medina from 1993–2002, designed for central Eindhoven and aided by Jo Coenen, the state architect for Holland. In 2012, Brown was invited by the residents to join them to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the project’s completion. The architectural quality of Brown’s British projects was confirmed by their listing as historic monuments (Alexandra Road in 1993, Fleet Road in 2010, and Winscombe Street in 2014). As significant was Brown’s evident rapport with those that lived in the homes he designed. The listing of Alexandra Road as “Grade 2” (Buckingham palace is Grade 1) inspired the film, made in 2010 by residents about their experiences, entitled One Below the Queen. Alexandra Road was completed just as architects were becoming “postmodern.” Brown was not unhappy to be considered an ‘’old-fashioned modernist’’ remaining intellectually engaged with the formal language of architecture and its relevance to an inclusive society. The reappraisal of Brown’s work comes at a time when London’s population is rapidly growing, there is a housing shortage, and London’s skyline is under threat. We are again seeking new models for raising density but maintaining the scale of the city.
Neave Brown, English architect and outspoken proponent of low-rise, high-density public housing, has died at age 88 on January 9th. A New York native, Brown left permanently for London to study at the Architectural Association in the mid-1950’s. Known for his work in concrete, Brown’s open, stepped post-war developments demonstrated that high-quality, mass public housing was possible on the scale of London’s existing Victorian row houses. Brown is the only architect to have all of his UK projects listed, a protected status in which a building may not be demolished, expanded, or altered without express permission from the local planning authority. These projects include Dartmouth Park, the Dunboyne Road Estate, and the Alexandra Road Estate, the 1968 brutalist housing complex for which he is perhaps best known. Despite retiring in 2002, Brown’s work has continued to be recognized. Only two months ago, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded Brown the 2018 Royal Gold Medal, acknowledging his lifetime of achievement in architecture. Advocating for a “social housing” model that emphasized communal living and fostering interaction between neighbors, Brown was vocally opposed to high-rise public estates. With the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy and demolition of Robin Hood Gardens fresh in the public’s mind, Brown had been scheduled to host a debate on social housing in February later this year.
Today the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced Neave Brown as the recipient of the 2018 Royal Gold Medal. The medal, approved personally by Queen Elizabeth II, recognizes a lifetime of achievement in the field of architecture, and is considered to be the highest honor an architect can receive in the U.K. Past recipients have included Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Upon learning he would receive the lauded prize, Brown remarked, "All my work! I got it just by flying blind, I seem to have been flying all my life." Such a prolific career as Brown's might seem a blur in retrospect, but his achievements are numerous. The New York–born architect, now 88 years old, is best known for his housing complexes in the UK. His most famous structure, the Alexandra Road Estate near London's Abbey Road (completed in 1978), features a Brutalist ziggurat of concrete, tiered apartment buildings obscuring the sound and vibrations of an adjacent railway. The lush grounds of the estate, which contains 520 residential units, are also home to a large park, community center, and school. Another, earlier project at Winscombe Street (completed in 1963), took its inspiration from housing structures by modernists like Le Corbusier as well as traditional London terraces. It is a set of five houses built of concrete and brick with a communal garden attached. In signing on to live there, residents are obliged to sign an agreement Brown himself wrote up: They must participate in the garden's maintenance as well as occasional events hosted at the houses. As Brown wrote in the rules, the garden was meant to be a shared space whose "combination of freedom, community, and privacy is valuable and vulnerable," a social resource he took very seriously as a design element. The houses at Winscombe Street and the Alexandra Road Estate have been listed (landmarked) in the U.K, as well as a third housing project on Fleet Road (also a split-level structure with inward-facing terraces), completed in 1977. This makes Brown the only architect to have all his projects listed in the U.K. Explaining his nomination of Brown for the Royal Gold Medal, architectural historian Mark Swenarton said: "Brown has provided a model of an architecture that is not just outstanding in its form but is thoroughly rooted both in the social relationships that it supports and in the urban tissue that it reinforces." At the ripe age of 73, Brown retired from architectural work to pursue a Bachelors in fine art, a passion he put aside at 20 years old for a career in design. With this medal, the entire architectural world has a reminder of his contributions to the field, and to thinking about social housing writ large.